A Genre by Any Other Name — Brett Armstrong
I am thrilled to welcome back author Brett Armstrong as he gives insight into one of the trickiest problems an author will face: identifying their genre.
A Genre By Any Other Name
Recently I was blessed to see a second novel the Lord laid on my heart get published. The book, Day Moon, is a science fiction and dystopian novel set in AD 2039 and aimed for young and new adult audiences. I mention this, because my first novel, Destitutio Quod Remissio (DQR), which won the 2014 CrossBooks Writing Contest, is decidedly not science fiction nor dystopian, is set in AD 303-304, and was more of an adult read. Already a few people who I’ve spoken with about both books are surprised to hear of such divergent books back-to-back. With others taking note, I felt like it was something to give some thought to and really begs the question of what exactly does genre mean for writing and does it matter?
If we’re going to discuss genre, it’s only fair to get a very basic definition. According to the Cambridge Dictionary of English, genre is: a style, especially in the arts, that involves a particular set of characteristics.
Seems fairly well-drawn out. It certainly comes across that way as an author when you’re trying to market a book, explain it to potential readers, or simply get a grasp on what it is that you’ve written. Every story needs to fit into well-defined boxes and to an extent that is understandable. Human nature tends towards defining things as part of our comprehending the world around us. I would wager God asking Adam to name the animals was more for Adam’s benefit than God’s. After all, as I started with, my two books Day Moon and DQR are drastically different in so many respects. Readers would absolutely need to know the genre of each book before choosing to invest time in reading them. Or do they? It’s certainly a criterion I’ve used to make decisions as a reader. Genre does matter, but it is to what degree that is a better question.
I often tell those who ask what I like about historical fiction and why I seem to write it most often, historical fiction is a story set in a world of yesterday, speaks about today, and can prepare you for tomorrow. It slips past a reader’s reservations and resistance and can converse with the reader about the world that we all face without agitating the reader’s sensibilities. At least ideally it accomplishes that. But if you consider science fiction and fantasy, it really is not so different a concept. All three genres are escapist by nature and allow readers to explore the issues of the real world in a world where things are a bit easier to face while enthralled by the new look of it all. So in that respect, historical fiction and science fiction/fantasy are not very different at all. Each genre requires transporting a reader to a world, which on the surface is vastly different from our own. CS Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia displays this connection, by pointing out that Narnia was only a partial picture of Heaven and existed to take a select group of people and expose them to Christ and His Kingdom in a way that caused them to love the eternal land to come through a dim shadow presented via Narnia itself. Likewise, a writer of historical, science fiction, and fantasy is endeavoring to take little glimpses of the real world and put them like nuggets into a simpler proxy. Meanwhile, as a reader, one may not even realize the points where the real world has intersected one’s experience. Though historical fiction, at times, does have the advantage of locales that did exist in some manner.
What’s more, I find several similar themes occurring in both DQR and Day Moon. This is no accident given they have a common author, but that each so readily supports something so intrinsic to apprehending a story as the core themes, it really speaks to the very fine line that exists between the genres. For instance, Day Moon led me to coin a term: surreality. It’s a composite of surrogate and reality, referring to the tendency for people to embrace a reality different from their actual one and live out their lives as though they aren’t aware of the tradeoff. But that very same concept appears in DQR as well, when talking about bread and circuses and the theatre culture of ancient Rome. To be fair there are so many parallels between ancient Roman culture and modern western culture’s direction for the future, it only makes sense some mutually applicable themes would occur in each context. But I really think it is more fundamental than that. I do not believe it is possible for us to escape history as we face each day and certainly not as we try to craft something that will speak to people. The past follows us relentlessly and feeds into our view of the present and future. So in that respect, genre doesn’t seem to matter nearly as much as the story that is being told.
Now much of what I’ve said is predicated on an assumption. The assumption that the writer is meaning to communicate something more than the strict action of the story to the reader. But it is very much possible to just write a story that is about robots or flying cars or wizards and the like. For me, and I think a lot of writers, the attitude is more along the lines of: if fiction books are escapism, then let the author write them so as to better equip the reader to face reality by the end. So, while genre does matter, I think what matters most isn’t the way you describe a book to a reader, but the way the book will describe the world to the reader.